“The company really is the people who work there today.”
With retail stores, kitchen design showrooms, sawmills, and over 500 employees, Hancock Lumber is one of Maine’s most enduring family businesses.
Founded in 1848, Hancock Lumber is also one of the oldest privately-held companies in the United States. On 12,000 acres in Southern Maine, the company grows trees that are milled and transported throughout Maine, the country, and the world.
Kevin Hancock, CEO and President, represents the sixth generation of the Hancock family.
Author of The Seventh Power: One CEO’s Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership (2020), Kevin’s management philosophy is to talk less, listen more, and ask a lot of questions.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him some questions.
Frank: Tell about your family.
Kevin: I grew up in Casco, a small town in Cumberland County, out by Sebago Lake, west of Portland. My parents were very involved in the local community. My mom was a teacher and my dad, back in the day, did what I do. He ran Hancock Lumber. I have a brother Matt who is a year younger than I am, and growing up, he and I had many friends in common, and we’d be doing stuff together most every afternoon after school.
It was pretty idyllic growing up. I was born in ´66, so I grew up through the ´70s into the early ´80s. It was a time when, as a kid, you really kind of self-organized your activities. We all played lots of sports, but for the most part it wasn’t organized by adults. It was still back in the day where you got on your bike and rounded up everybody in the neighborhood and either went to the gym or found a field to play baseball or football, or whatever the game of the day was.
I graduated from Lake Region High School and went on to Bozeman College in Montana. When I went to college, I never thought about coming to work for the company. I didn’t have negative views of that path in any way—it just didn’t cross my mind. At the time, I was very interested in teaching and coaching, and specifically I was interested in being a college basketball coach.
So, I took off in that direction, but then, in 1991, my dad got cancer. He was only 48 years old at the time. For a number of reasons, including that one, I quit teaching and coaching at Bridgton Academy here in Maine and came back to work for the company. I started on the sales counter at one of our stores, in Yarmouth, and 30 years later, here I am.
Frank: When you have a company as old as Hancock Lumber, and you have generation after generation, a family tends to get bigger. How did your forebears pass the company from one generation to the next?
Kevin: My grandfather, Kenneth, also ran the company. Kenneth was one of three brothers, and over time, he ended up buying them out. My dad was an only child, so that transition was simple. And then there were just two of us, my brother and I. We worked together in the business for quite some time. He ended up moving on to do different things. There really wasn’t any kind of master plan to it all.
Frank: You had a dream of being a coach and a teacher. How difficult was it for you to make that career change?
Kevin: It was difficult. I was only 25 years old at the time, but I had the sense that this was a big decision. I’ve always tended to get into everything with both feet, all in. So, I had a sense that if I came back to the family business, that’s probably where I was most likely going to stay. And I knew the company, having grown up around it, but I just never really thought about it as career.
But that was when there were lots of family businesses in our industry, and they tended to stay in the family. So, I knew, as my dad’s older son, that if I came in, there was a good chance that I would end up where I ended up.
Frank: Were you married at the time?
Kevin: Yes. And it was a family decision. We were living in Maine and living in the area, so it wasn’t really a big decision about where we were going to live, but it was a big decision about what I was going to be doing.
We all look back on our lives, I think, at many, many defining moments. A few are more defining than others. For me, that choice was one of them. There’s no telling where that other path would have led.
Frank: So, do you have a basketball court in the backyard?
Kevin: I do. How did you know?
Frank: I just had this feeling. Now, do you have any other relatives working with you?
Kevin: Today, the company has 565 people and I’m the only one with the last name Hancock, but there are two interesting things there.
First, from a family perspective, we’ve tried to create a culture where people in the family don’t have to work at the company to love the company. My mom, for example, as a shareholder, has been to every board meeting since my dad died in 1997. She’s never worked a day in the company, in terms of being an actual employee on the payroll, but she’s been one of the most important people in the company’s success.
Then there’s the other side of that. Yes, we think of ourselves as a family business, but even moreso, we are an independent, Maine-based, privately held company. As you know, our company goes back to 1848, but today, the company is the people who work here. I’m really passionate about shared leadership, dispersed power, and respect for all voices.
We have worked hard to create a culture where everyone feels like this is their company. If we have 565 employees, we have 565 leaders who define who the company today. We really think about it more as a local community business. It’s really never been about the family. The capacity of the company is much bigger than that in terms of what it can do for our employees, their families, and the communities we’re a part of.
Frank: Do you have children?
Kevin: We do. My wife Allison and I have two adult daughters. They’re both living in Boston, working on their own, doing great things. But that’s a good example of what I’m talking about. They’re both big supporters of the company, very interested in and enthusiastic, and committed to being long term supporters of the company, which could, but does not have to, include working here.
In terms of succession, I think the days are over of the job falling most often to the oldest son in the business. Today, it’s a different world … in a good way.
Frank: Things were different in your grandfather’s generation?
Kevin: At that time, every community in Maine had its own local lumber company. There were dozens upon dozens of them. The companies were smaller. They were very rooted in their local community. At that time for sure, lumber companies made their own lumber, owned their own timberland, and, wherever their mill was, they had a store. Back then, you had a neighborhood grocery store and a neighborhood lumber yard.
Frank: Over the past 40 or 50 years, there has been consolidation?
Kevin: We’re actually unique today in that we own timber land, we grow trees, and we have sawmills, we manufacture lumber, and we have retail stores across Maine and New Hampshire that sell a full line of building materials. Typically, what you’ll see today is a company specializing in one of those businesses rather than being in all of them.
But yes, starting in the ´80s, there’s been a tremendous amount of consolidation in our industry. And national companies like Home Depot and Lowe’s have emerged. Another change is that we export about 20 percent of what we manufacture, with most of it going to the Far East to countries like Vietnam.
Frank: When did you know you could run the company?
Kevin: When I first took over in my early 30s, like any young 30-year-old might feel, I was certain I could run the company. But I actually couldn’t.
I learned most of my business lessons the hard way. I ended up just being lucky enough and surrounded by enough great people to have survived them.
Early on as a CEO, you think about your goal as paying attention to what others are doing. Over time I let go of that approach. I have come to focus on what I need to do and what kind of change I need to make—myself—in order to become the change I wish to see in our company.
I’ve worked hard to make my role smaller. I’ve worked hard to give away power, not collect it. To share control, not seize it. When you disperse power across a bigger group of people, it makes everybody better, and the odds that one single person’s choices will determine the fate of the company go way down.
With everyone helping, it’s just a lighter lift than when two or three people are calling all the shots.
Frank: How did you change?
Kevin: Well, for one thing, around 2000, I acquired a rare voice disorder, called spasmodic dysphonia, which suddenly made doing a lot of talking very, very difficult. Prior to that, I’d been a typical CEO—front and center. Suddenly, I couldn’t do that. I was forced to get more help, step back, and share leadership more broadly. And as I did that, I came to see that being the CEO was a role I am proud of and committed to, but it wasn’t me. I am something different than that. That leap is what transformed my ability to be effective in my work and to have a balanced life. I see my malady as a gift, in hindsight.